The Archbishop of Canterbury yesterday coupled a proposal for church-sponsored credit unions with a call for more understanding of bankers and payday lenders. Nor should he be condemned for combining the two. As ever, there is a tension in Christianity, as in humanist ethics, between a righteous anger against money-lenders corrupting spiritual values and a compassion that seeks the best in everyone.
As a former oil executive and a member of the Banking Commission, Justin Welby has an advantage over many clergy – and indeed much of the laity – in knowing what he is talking about. He was also right, for instance, to point out that simply demonising payday loan companies and trying to ban their activities does nothing to deal with the problems from which these companies may profit. It is not as if he was asking for special consideration for better-off people. He has also spoken out against the use of “derogatory terms” for those who receive benefits.
And what is important about the Archbishop’s proposal for credit unions is that it goes beyond the moralising and name-calling and suggests that the Church of England could do something practical about problem debt. Although better regulation of the payday loans business is needed, this has to be accompanied by enlightened ways of tackling the underlying problems. Credit unions, which are local self-help organisations likely to have a better understanding of people’s circumstances, are an intelligent way of trying to do precisely that.
How refreshing it is for the Church to have a leader who understands the business world and who is able to bring his experience to bear on the social problems about which the Church rightly speaks out, but about which it can also sometimes be naive. Some short-term unsecured lending is useful, and the high interest rate fairly reflects the risk of lending to people with a poor credit history. But much of it exposes social issues about which the Church is right to be concerned – and for which it is even more right to offer practical help.